Retro Review: Slam Dunk Ernest…That “Other” Ernest Movie.
Let me start by saying I have watched a lot of Jim Varney’s Ernest movies. Ernest Saves Christmas? A classic. Ernest Scared Stupid? You’re goddamn right. Ernest Goes to Camp? Bro, do you even Ernest, bro? I can still taste the sugar on the back of my teeth from Saturday mornings filled with Super Mario Bros. cereal and “Hey Vern, It’s Ernest!” playing at the tail end of the cartoon block. Yeah, make me look like a Wall Street Tycoon, Mr. Barber…I dare you.
So believe me when I say that this movie is a ghost. A non-entity. I vaguely remember it having existed, but when I went to research it for March Madness, I came up with diddly squat. After ten minutes of searching, I found a grainy VHS version online…in Turkish. Amazon wanted me to pony up $30, plus shipping, to get my hands on a crappy DVD compilation. I finally found a local place that had a copy, and I thought they were trying to sell me a beer coaster from an Elks Lodge. This disc was gnarly. But $5 later, and prodigious amounts of disc polish later, I had an original version of this film in my hot little hands. And let me tell you…it wasn’t lost without a reason.
Slam Dunk Ernest (1995)
Ernest P. Worrell, an affable but incredibly simple red-neck, works for a late night cleaning company whose primary gig is cleaning up the mall after customers leave. His five African American co-workers all aspire to win the all-city basketball tourney, and take time out of their routine to drag a hoop into the mall and practice after hours. Ernest idolizes his co-workers, though they give him very little credit, and wants desperately to be on the team. When a mishap causes the team to damage mall property (due to Ernest’s talent at causing mayhem with a basketball) Ernest steps up and takes all of the blame, saving the jobs of everyone involved. They make him an honorary member, but never plan on letting him play. The Archangel of Basketball, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, visits Ernest and gifts him magical sneakers that let him play miraculous hoops, with the solemn warning that he should never abuse them…
Comedy and Tragedy
This movie is a pretty standard PSA about making friends, prizing hard work, and working as a team. As an after school special, its not especially bad. The problem with this film is that it is a culture clash that constantly undermines the message. Ernest, as a character, works best when his difference is his simple-mindedness. Ernest Goes to Camp, Saves Christmas, and Scare Stupid made decent bank at the box office, because it catered to Ernest’s strengths. He’s a work-a-day blue collar hill billy who usually winds up on top because his personal ethics trump his stupidity. The movies that worked best had him in his usual folksy southern environment, letting his back-woods charm shine. The movies that flopped (Ernest Rides Again, Slam Dunk, and Ernest Goes to Africa) put him in uncomfortable settings, where his folksy ways are mostly tin-eared and culturally insensitive. It’s never mean-spirited, but the humor ends up always playing on stereotypes. He’s either the yokel amongst egg-heads, or he’s the hick amongst black culture, and all the best intentions in the world can’t save that formula from feeling gross.
Another flaw in this movie is that it is trying to sandwich two very distinct elements together. Ernest is a character reliant upon physical comedy. Like the early Jim Carrey, he’s plastic-faced, gangling, and accident prone. He needs silly antics to be at this strongest. The quintessential sports story is about underdogs winning against long odds, but you have to believe they have a shot. The miracle shoes try to bridge the gap, as they are semi-sentient and cause Ernest to trip over his own feet when not on the court, but they defeat both elements. He’s not funny as a bumbling fool because something outside himself is tripping him up, and he’s not believable as an underdog because the shoes make him god-like. Trying to have it both ways ends up hurting both comedic angles. As an added detriment, the sneakers lead to some lazy and ugly special effects.
It’s Not All Bad
Low budget and cultural faux pas aside, this isn’t a terrible movie. It has an echo of the charm of the Ernest character, and some sequences capture that silly vibe. Every time Ernest tries to shoot the ball un-assisted, it leads to a cavalcade of physical comedy. Some of the elements where Ernest finally bests his own feet are funny and well done. His team-mates are mostly stereotypes, but the team captain, Barry (Cylk Cozart) is fully fleshed out as a strong father and team leader, who really informs the heart of the “work hard to win” message being presented here. Lots of people deride this as the worst Ernest movie…but that’s actually not much of a put down. Ernest is a character aimed at children, using physical comedy and silly faces to score easy laughs. Jim Carrey also used this formula, but with crass intentions and crappy results. I’d rather watch a month of Ernest movies than suffer through another viewing of Ace Ventura: When Nature Calls. This isn’t the kind of movie to seek out, but it is the kind of flick that gives me fond memories of how funny Jim Varney was in his prime.